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Archive for the ‘Aleppo’ Tag


The Secret for the Best Yalanji

The best recipes I learned in Aleppo were from home cooks. They have all the secrets. They taught me how to touch and feel food. They chided me for measuring ingredients. They always had the best stories.

Before the internet, this is how secrets were passed around. Person-to-person. Only the best tricks survived the test of time. During Lent, my grandmother’s sister, Aunt Kiki, invited me to prepare yalanji with her. Yalanji is originally a Turkish word. It means “liar” or “fake.” In the food world, yalanji refers to vegetarian stuffed vegetables or dolmas. That’s because dolmas are typically stuffed with a fragrant meat and rice mixture, whereas yalanji dolmas are “fake” because they’re vegetarian.

The star of yalanji is really the filling. The vegetable on the exterior is merely a vehicle for the delicious, vegetarian stuffing. You typically find yalanji made from stuffing grape leaves and even tiny baby eggplants, but my grandmother’s sister loved the delicate, silky texture of Swiss chard. I’ve had yalanji at many restaurants and homes, but none come close to Aunt Kiki’s recipe.

Yalanji takes time, preparation, and lots of effort. The day Aunt Kiki taught me her recipe, I remember we woke exceptionally early to go to Aleppo’s main vegetable market (سوق الخضرة). This was a real farmers market. The vendors were all local farmers selling what was plentiful and in-season. The vegetables were overflowing, freshly picked, with dirt still on the surfaces. Prices were competitive, too. As we walked past the carts, vendors belted their best prices. It was like walking into an auction hall of produce. It was loud and exciting. I drew a lot of attention with my big camera. Kids followed me around posing with their family’s produce.

Aleppo Vegetable Market, 2010
Swiss Chard with a Smile

In order to make the best yalanji, you need to pack lots of flavor into the stuffing. Unlike meat-based dolmas, yalanji don’t have the benefit of fatty meat. That’s where Aunt Kiki’s secret comes into play. Once we washed our produce from the market, I remember she asked me for Turkish coffee from the pantry. I assumed she wanted to re-energize. I reached for the brik (Turkish coffee pot) and handed her a couple of demitasses. She chuckled; I was confused. That’s when she revealed that the coffee was for the filling. At first I thought she was joking. I had tasted her yalanji before. It was amazing. Delicious. Full of flavor, but it didn’t taste like coffee. That’s because a spoonful is all you need. The coffee adds depth that’s satisfying, yet barely noticeable.

mise en place
mise en place
sweat yellow onions
sweat yellow onions
rinse rice
rinse rice
vegetarian stuffing
vegetarian stuffing
wash Swiss chard
wash Swiss chard
remove stems
remove stems
blanch chard leaves
blanch chard leaves
shock in ice bath
shock in ice bath
prepare to stuff
prepare to stuff
stuffing: step 1
stuffing: step 1
stuffing: step 2
stuffing: step 2
stuffing: step 3
stuffing: step 3
stuffing: step 4
stuffing: step 4
stuffing: step 5
stuffing: step 5
potatoes to prevent sticking/burning
potatoes at the bottom of the pot to prevent sticking/burning
yalanji, organized
yalanji, organized in pot
heavy plate
heavy plate
yalanji (يلنجي)
yalanji (يلنجي)
yalanji (يلنجي) with lemon
yalanji (يلنجي) with lemon

Yalanji Dolmas

yields ~32 pieces

Components

  • 16 large Swiss chard leaves
  • 1 cup medium grain rice
  • 3/4 cup walnuts, chopped
  • 3-4 medium yellow onions, diced
  • 1 bunch flat leaf parsley, chopped
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice, freshly squeezed
  • 3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 Tbsp pomegranate molasses
  • 1 Tbsp red pepper paste
  • 1 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 Tbsp Turkish coffee, ground
  • 1 tsp dried mint
  • 1 tsp granulated sugar
  • 1/2 tsp allspice
  • salt, to taste
  • 1 potato, optional
  • 2 lemons, for garnish

Putting them all together

  1. Wash Swiss chard leaves in cold water. With the chard leaves vein side up, flat on a cutting board, remove the stems by running your knife along both sides of the stem (do not discard stems*).
  2. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Season with salt.
  3. Blanch the Swiss chard leaves submerging them in the boiling water for 15-30 seconds, then removing them to a bowl of ice water to halt the cooking process. This preserves the leaves’ vibrant green color and makes them easier to stuff. Drain leaves and set aside.
  4. Rinse rice under cold water. Drain and set aside.
  5. In a large sauté pan over medium low heat, add olive oil and diced onions. Season with salt. Sweat onions until translucent. Make sure not to brown or caramelize the onions.
  6. Add the rice to the onions. Cook over medium-low heat for 3-5 minutes, stirring occasionally to give the rice a head start.
  7. Mix all the stuffing ingredients together (everything except for the Swiss chard, potatoes, and lemons). Season with salt (taste and adjust accordingly).
  8. Lay one strip of blanched Swiss chard leaf on a clean work surface. Add a tablespoon (Tbsp) of filling to the base. Fold in a triangular pattern as shown in the photos (like folding a flag) until the filling is securely tucked inside the leaf. Continue until all the leaves and stuffing are complete.
  9. Line the bottom or a medium to large pot with sliced potatoes* to protect the yalanji from burning.
  10. Arrange the triangular yalanji in the pot in a way that minimizes the space between them, like a game of Tetris.
  11. Add 3/4 cup of water to the lemon juice. Season with salt (to taste). Pour lemon mixture over the yalanji. Add more water until it the top row is covered by about 1/2 an inch.
  12. Insert a heavy, heat-proof plate over the yalanji to keep them submerged and prevent them from moving while cooking.
  13. Place the pot over medium high heat until the water comes to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer (low) and cook for 45 minutes.
  14. After 45 minutes, taste a yalanji from the top to make sure the rice is fully cooked. If not, continue cooking until rice is slightly al dente.
  15. Drain excess cooking liquid from the pot. Allow yalanji to cool to room temperature. Gently remove the yalanji from the pot and store them covered in the refrigerator until ready to eat. Yalanji taste better the following day, once they’ve had a chance to cool and the flavors have married.

Notes: Make sure not to add Turkish coffee infused with cardamom, otherwise that will throw off the flavor of your yalanji. If you don’t have a potato, you could also use the leftover stems from the Swiss chard. If you line the bottom of the pot with potatoes, do not discard the Swiss chard stems. Chop them up into large chunks and cook them with thinly sliced onions and minced garlic in a bit of extra virgin olive oil. Season with salt, ground coriander, and serve over a bed of rice. You can finish off with a fried egg or serve it alongside a creamy, mint-garlic yogurt sauce.

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the perfect bite
the perfect bite

Teta’s Kibbeh Nayyeh

Kibbeh nayyeh, the Middle Eastern version of lamb tartare, is a festive dish steeped in culinary tradition. Before refrigeration, you used to prepare kibbeh nayyeh the day a lamb was slaughtered. This was standard for weddings or holidays. The entire village used to come together. There would be more food than anyone could possibly eat. There was music and dancing. It was a production.

The best kibbeh nayyeh is made with ultra lean meat. It shouldn’t have any fat or gristle, lest you ruin the delicate flavor and texture of the meat. Before the advent of meat grinders and food processors, the meat used to be finely minced using a sharp knife and pounded into a smooth paste using a large stone mortar, called a jurn. The person behind the jurn would typically hand out samples and adjust the seasoning accordingly.

I have fond memories of my grandmother (teta) preparing kibbeh nayyeh at home. My mom and aunts would help prepare other dishes, but kibbeh nayyeh was my teta’s specialty. She used to grind her own meat using a huge, commercial-grade meat grinder tucked away in a small room behind her kitchen. She used to pass the meat through grinder three times, using progressively finer disks. I remember staring into the machine as braids of meat streamed out of the extruder. After three runs through the grinder, she blended the meat in a food processor with a few cubes of ice until the meat resembled the smooth, creamy consistency that’s emblematic of kibbeh nayyeh pounded in the jurn. The ice helps keep the meat chilled. I loved being around teta in the kitchen because she used to feed me bites of whatever she’s cooking. Food always tasted better from her hands.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a back room in my kitchen or space for a commercial-grade meat grinder, so I rely on my local butcher at Parts and Labor for kibbeh meat. If you work with a local butcher to prepare kibbeh nayyeh, it’s important they know you plan to eat the meat raw. Ask for fresh meat without any fat whatsoever. They should grind it three times on a clean machine, before any other meat is ground. If you find a butcher who will do all this for you, bring them back some kibbeh nayyeh for them to try — they’re a keeper.

mise en place
mise en place
rough chop
rough chop
red pepper + onion pulp
red pepper + onion pulp
soaking bulgur wheat
soaking bulgur wheat
ice keeps the lamb chilled
ice keeps the lamb chilled
habra: lamb paste
habra: lamb paste
mix habra and seasoned bulgur
mix habra and seasoned bulgur
kibbeh nayyeh, platter presentation
kibbeh nayyeh, platter presentation
kibbeh nayyeh, mezze presentation
kibbeh nayyeh, mezze presentation
kibbeh nayyeh (كبةنيّ)
kibbeh nayyeh (كبة نيّة)

Kibbeh Nayyeh

yields 6-8 servings

Components

  • 1lb fresh, lean lamb, finely ground
  • 1/2 lb bulgur wheat, #1 (finely ground)
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 1 yellow onion
  • 1 Tbsp red pepper paste
  • 1 tsp cumin, ground
  • 1 tsp Aleppo pepper, ground
  • salt, to taste

Sides

  • fresh mint
  • fresh onions
  • fresh peppers
  • fresh pita bread

Putting them all together

  1. Chill the freshly ground lamb in the freezer for an hour or until very cold, but not frozen.
  2. Blend the onion and red bell pepper in the food processor.
  3. In a large bowl, combine the red pepper and onion pulp, Aleppo pepper, cumin, red pepper paste, and salt. Add the bulgur wheat and knead until well combined. Set aside.
  4. Blend the chilled meat in a large food processor with a couple cubes of ice until a smooth, creamy paste is achieved.
  5. . In a large bowl, combine the meat paste with the bulgur soaked bulgur wheat. Knead until well combined. Check for seasoning and adjust accordingly.
  6. Shape the kibbeh nayyeh on a large platter or into individual patties*. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and serve with fresh mint, onions, peppers, and pita bread.

Notes: Traditionally, kibbeh nayyeh is served alongside a glass of Arak, an anise-infused distilled drink made from grapes. To prepare the kibbeh nayyeh, form a small ball (the size of a golf ball) and gently squeeze it in your fist until it forms the appropriate shape. If you don’t have access to lamb, you can prepare kibbeh nayyeh using fresh beef, either top or eye of the round cut.

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the perfect bite
the perfect bite

In Defense of Local Butchery

The first time I visited an actual butcher — the kind not inside a grocery store — was when I lived in Aleppo. I was 24. It took traveling halfway around the world to watch a professional meticulously break down an animal. It was both horrifying and intriguing. There were meat carcasses hanging around me while I struck up a conversation with Yasser, the head butcher, over a cup of freshly brewed Turkish coffee. It was such a surreal experience that I wrote about it on my blog. The irony, of course, is that this approach to butchery is much closer to the actual source of meat than anything we’re used to finding at a grocery store.

I’m not vegetarian, but I care about meat. I care about how animals are raised. I care about their welfare. I care about what Michael Pollan describes as, their “creaturely character.” Happiness for any animal, he explains, stems from their opportunity to express their essential “pigness” or “wolfness” or “chickenness.” In his piece for New York Times Magazine, An Animal’s Place, Pollan asserts that “for domesticated species, the good life […] cannot be achieved apart from humans –- apart from our farms and, therefore, our meat eating.”

Michael Pollan is one of my favorite food writers. If you care about meat (or food in general), you should read his work. In this particular piece, Pollan interrogates his own practice of eating meat. He thoughtfully examines the moral and ethical qualms of slaughtering animals for food. This careful introspection is something most vegetarians have worked though. The meat we find in most grocery stores is processed and packaged to barely resemble the animals it came from. This disconnect is intentional. If only we knew the reality of how most of our meat is processed, more of us would probably be vegetarian.

The issue of meat production is complex. It’s tied to socio-economic issues, health, the environment, and many other facets of our lives. Access to inexpensive, low-quality meat has triggered a public health criss in the US. Why would someone buy fresh vegetables when a hamburger and fries with a soft drink is less expensive and more convenient? Meat across the Middle East, for the most part, is still relatively expensive compared to vegetables, grains, and legumes, which are plentiful and cheap.

Ever since I moved back to the US, I go out of my way to buy meat from local farms. Not only does the meat taste better, but it’s important to support local farmers who work hard to raise animals sustainably and with compassion. Parts & Labor is a local restaurant and butchery in Baltimore’s Remington neighborhood that’s committed to sustainable, whole-animal butchery. This means they buy whole animals from local farms, break them down in-house, and use as much of the animal as possible. The menu development process at Parts & Labor relies heavily on use of the whole animal. Wyatt Jaster, butcher at Parts & Labor explains, “we use trotters (pig feet) to thicken a sauce used on one of our sandwiches. Another dish we are very proud of is our crispy pork rind. It took a lot of trial and error to get that just the way we wanted it.” Whole animal butchery is important because it fully honors the sacrifice of a living creature. Additionally, it reduces waste and introduces consumers to a variety of products that they might have otherwise overlooked or not known about.

Parts & Labor
Parts & Labor
Committed to local, sustainable butchery
Committed to local, sustainable butchery
curing room at P&L
curing room at P&L

Parts & Labor opened their doors in April of 2014 in a space that used to be an auto body and tire shop. From steaks to homemade sausage and cured meats, the butchers at Parts & Labor pride themselves on seam butchery, a classic French technique of breaking down animals following the natural seams of muscles. Parts & Labor is the sister restaurant to Woodberry Kitchen, both of which are owned by James Beard award-winning chef and restauranteur, Spike Gjerde. Spike and and his entire team are committed to a local, sustainable culture of cooking and eating.

tending to the smoker
tending to the smoker
smoking pit
smoking pit

A couple weeks ago, I asked the team of butchers at Parts & Labor for ground lamb without any fat so that I can prepare kibbeh nayye, the Middle Eastern version of lamb tartare. If you’re going to prepare kibbeh nayyeh, which literally translates to raw kibbeh, you want to make sure you work with a local butcher shop that sources their meat from reputable farmers. It’s incredibly important that the lamb is fresh with as little fat as possible. Parts & Labor sources their lamb from Shenandoah Valley Lamb, a local co-op composed of small farms in Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

fresh lamb
fresh lamb

I was excited to go behind the scenes at Parts & Labor to recreate a similar experience I had while living in Syria. I shadowed Wyatt, who worked with his team to break down three lamb they had received that day. I also got a tour of their curing room, where they age all the salumi, which they prepare in-house.

If you’re not a vegetarian, it’s important to examine where your meat comes from. What conditions are the animals raised in? Are they treated with excessive use of antibiotics? Meat from a local butcher or a farm is more expensive, but that’s only because we live under the illusion that meat is an industrial commodity that can be produced cheaply and in large quantities. That’s simply not true. I want to thank the team at Parts & Labor for their commitment to local, sustainable practices and for allowing me shadow them for an afternoon. Stay tuned the kibbeh nayyeh recipe next week!

pulling lamb suet (hard white fat)
pulling lamb suet (hard white fat)
heavy machinery
heavy machinery
lamb cavity
lamb cavity
lamb breakdown
lamb breakdown
Manuel, 30 years of experience
Manuel, 30 years of experience
teamwork
teamwork: Manuel splits the chest cavity
Wyatt debones leg of lamb
Wyatt debones leg of lamb
Parts & Labor
Parts & Labor

Abu Abdo’s April “Ful”

One of the most popular and iconic restaurants in all of Aleppo was Abu Abdo’s— a tiny fava bean parlor tucked away in the city’s historic Jdaydeh district. There was only one item on the menu: ful (fava beans). Fava beans for breakfast is to Arabs what steak and eggs is to Americana. It’s the beloved breakfast of champions. One bowl of fava beans packs enough fuel to keep you going all day.

Abu Abdo’s dad, Abdo, opened the iconic shop bearing his name in 1885. Everyone from celebrities and high-ranking politicians to the poorest in the community have eaten at Abu Abdo’s. Wealthy entrepreneurs have tried to convince Abu Abdo to sell his shop or open a franchise, but Abu Abdo always turned down these offers. He has worked behind the counter, serving the community, since he was twelve years old.

Abu Abdo
Abu Abdo

Photo credit: Emily Smith Chammah

Abu Abdo’s shop has a couple tables, but most patrons pick up their fava beans to-go (سفري) in small plastic bags. Abu Abdo is always the one behind the counter, greeting customers while frantically filling orders. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

Unfortunately, Abu Abdo’s has since closed due to the ongoing war in Syria. The historic Jdeydeh district has sustained substantial damage from fighting between rebel and government forces.

The secret to Abu Abdo’s success though was never tied to his fava beans. He was successful because of the way he greeted and interacted with his community. He was honest, kind, and never turned away a hungry visitor, regardless of how little money they had. Kids would sometimes ask how much ful they could buy with 5 Syrian pounds (the equivalent of a few cents), knowing Abu Abdo would take care of them and their families.

Abu Abdo was committed to his craft, as was his father before him. He never let fame get in the way of his work. While you can find ful in a can these days, it’s a treat to pay homage to this hard working Syrian legend by recreating his classic fava beans from scratch.

mise en place
mise en place
soaked fava beans
soaked fava beans
cooked fava beans
cooked fava beans
tahini-lemon-garlic sauce
tahini-lemon-garlic sauce
ful in tahini sauce (فولبالطحينة)
ful in tahini sauce (فول بالطحينة)

Ful in Tahini Sauce

yields 6-8 servings

Components

  • 2 cups dried fava beans
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice, freshly squeezed
  • 1-2 cloves garlic
  • 1/4 cup tahini
  • 1 tsp cumin, ground
  • 1 tsp Aleppo pepper, ground
  • diced tomatoes
  • chopped parsley
  • fresh mint
  • fresh pita bread

Putting them all together

  1. Rinse dried fava beans. Soak beans in cold water with 1/4 tsp of baking soda* for 36-48 hours.
  2. Rinse soaked fava beans in cold water. Fill a large pot with cold water and cook fava beans for 4-6 hours or until they are soft. Do not add salt until the very end.
  3. Prepare the sauce by mixing freshly squeezed lemon juice with garlic, cumin, Aleppo pepper, and tahini. Season with salt (to taste).
  4. While the beans are still warm, drain (don’t worry about removing every drop of water) then toss with the tahini-lemon-garlic sauce. Serve alongside, diced tomatoes, chopped parsley, chunks of raw yellow onion, fresh mint, and plenty of extra virgin olive oil. You can eat the ful with a spoon or with pita bread.

Notes: Soaking the beans in water with a little baking soda helps yield a more tender, creamier bean. You can add a spoon of red pepper paste to the top of your ful for a spicy kick.

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ful bite (لقمةفول)
Ful bite (لقمة فول)

In Syria, Aleppo Pepper is King

One of the ingredients I miss the most from Syria is the famous Aleppo pepper. It’s the culinary ambassador to Aleppo around the world— a relatively long and slender pepper with bright, fruity flavor. It packs moderate heat: less than cayenne, but more than jalapeño. It’s the goldilocks of peppers. You can usually find dried and ground in most speciality spice stores or Mediterranean markets, but finding fresh is almost impossible.

Towards the end of pepper season, usually late summer/early fall, farmers and home cooks in Aleppo convert their surplus pepper into the most magnificent red pepper paste called debs flefleh (دبس الفليفلة) or “pepper molasses.” Molasses in Arabic refers to any fruit/vegetable pulp that is reduced low and slow. Home cooks dry the leftover peppers on their rooftops until most, but not all, the moisture has evaporated. You don’t want the peppers to be completely dry otherwise it will be difficult to process them into a paste. The final consistency is similar to tomato paste.

Unlike the rest of Syria or other cities across the Levant, Aleppo’s cuisine is famous for bursts of heat from using Aleppo pepper in all its forms (fresh, dried/ground, paste). A lot of recipes on my blog call for “red pepper paste” (e.g. muhammara, lahme b’ajeen, white bean salad). Unfortunately, most of the store-bought varieties of red pepper paste are packed with preservatives. If you buy it from a Mediterranean market, try to find a reputable brand that only uses only high quality peppers and salt as their ingredients. Make sure not to confuse red pepper paste with shatta, which is a hot sauce used more as a condiment, as opposed to red pepper paste, which is used as an ingredient in cooking.

I’ve received many recipe requests for a red pepper paste. Since it’s difficult to find fresh Aleppo peppers, I’ve come up with a recipe that uses fresh red bell peppers mixed with a handful of spicy red peppers, like cayenne. The process of making your own is fairly simple, although it does take time. You can adjust the spiciness of your paste by adding more or less spicy peppers, depending on your preference.

a bushel of peppers
a bushel of peppers
wash peppers
wash peppers
arrange cut peppers on baking sheets
arrange cut peppers on baking sheets
slightly moist, not dry
slightly moist, not dry peppers
salt paste to taste
salt paste to taste
optimal consistency
salt paste to taste
debs flefleh (دبس الفليفلة)
salt paste to taste

Red Pepper Paste

yields two small jars

Components

  • 25 lbs of red bell peppers
  • 15-20 cayenne peppers
  • salt, to taste
  • olive oil, to seal the jar

Putting them all together

  1. Wash peppers and roughly cut them into flat chunks. Align them across multiple baking sheets so the peppers do not overlap.
  2. Cook for 4-6 hours on your oven’s lowest setting (mine was 170°F/77°C). If your oven can go lower or has a dehydrate option, I recommend using that. Be sure to rotate the trays a few times during the cooking process so that the peppers reduce evenly. You want them to turn a dark red flavor (avoid browning) and slightly moist and soft to the touch, not dry.
  3. Process the reduced peppers in the food processor until a smooth paste is achieved.
  4. Season with salt, to taste.
  5. Store the red pepper paste in clean jars. Finish with a cap of olive oil on top to help keep the paste fresh until ready to use. Store in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Notes: You should only prepare red pepper paste during pepper season (late summer to early fall), when there is a surplus of peppers. Work with local farmers. This recipe is for a medium-heat paste. You can add/reduce the number of cayenne peppers to adjust the overall heat. You should store your red pepper paste in the refrigerator unless you preserve it using canning techniques.

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cap of olive oil for freshness
cap of olive oil for freshness